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October 19, 2009

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Pakistan and Taliban both claim success

THE Pakistani army and the Taliban claimed to be inflicting heavy casualties on each other as fierce fighting raged yesterday on the second day of a military assault on an al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuary close to the Afghan border.

The army said 60 militants had been killed on the first day of the operation in South Waziristan, while six soldiers had died.

The Taliban claimed to have inflicted "heavy casualties" on the army and to have pushed invading soldiers back into their bases.

It was not possible to independently verify the conflicting claims because the army is blocking access to the region.

Accounts from those fleeing South Waziristan yesterday suggested the 30,000 Pakistani troops were in for a bloodier time than in the Swat Valley, another northwestern region, which the army successfully wrested away from insurgents earlier this year.

"Militants are offering very tough resistance to any movement of troops," said fleeing resident Ehsan Mahsud.

He said the army appeared to be mostly relying on airstrikes and artillery against militants occupying high ground. He said the insurgents were firing heavy machine guns at helicopter gunships, forcing the air force to use higher-flying jets.

The army is up against about 10,000 local militants and about 1,500 foreign fighters, most of them from Central Asia.

Officials have said they envisage the operation will last two months, when winter weather will make fighting difficult.

About 150,000 civilians have left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but as many as 350,000 could still be in the region.

Authorities are not expecting a major refugee crisis like the one that occurred during the offensive this year in the Swat Valley.


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